Muhammad Ali: Mild-Mannered Retiree, Big-Time Local Sports Fan

A 1960 Rome Olympics gold medalist goes toe-to-toe with a 2010 Special Olympics gold medalist.EXPAND
A 1960 Rome Olympics gold medalist goes toe-to-toe with a 2010 Special Olympics gold medalist.
Monkey Mancheeks via Flickr

To the rest of the world, Muhammad Ali's legacy will be that of the person who dragged sports out of the black-and-white 1950s and into a full-color world.

As the first major athlete (and maybe the last in our lifetimes) to put principle over personal fortune and public approbation.

As the most oversize sports personality ever.

As the world's most recognizable person.

As a humanitarian who promoted numerous charitable causes.

As an unofficial ambassador for the United States.

Me? I think of him as a mild-mannered Arizona retiree and an avid local sports fan. I'd see him from time to time at local sports events. If you attended enough of them over the past quarter-century, you probably ran into him, too.

Ali lived quietly in Paradise Valley, adjacent to the McCormick Ranch area of Scottsdale. He attended a host of Phoenix Suns games over the years. I first saw him toward the end of the Suns' run at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum and then at America West Arena (or whatever the hell it's called now).

In the early 2000s, he turned up in the Suns' locker room and regaled three or four of us media types with a magic trick in which he appeared to levitate, his feet seeming to leave to ground. I have no idea how he did it.

Then he told an ethnic joke, mild but politically incorrect.

In 2007, he materialized  at a baseball tournament at McClintock High School in Tempe. One of his sons was a catcher for St. Mary's, whose Knights were participating. My older son, who played for McClintock, and a teammate summoned the nerve to introduce themselves during a break. They welcomed Ali to Tempe, shook his hand, and watched him pose for a photo with an infant who belonged to another well-wisher.

A few years later, he made it to Tucson to watch the University of Arizona baseball team play the University of Louisville, whose campus is located a few miles from Ali's boyhood home.

He attended a Coyotes game.

He was here so long that you and Ali might have been at the same event, even if you didn't realize it.

The last time I saw him was at an ASU baseball game in 2009. He was introduced to the fans, who roared a welcome but otherwise left him alone.

Maybe that's what he liked about Arizona. People here may not be terribly sophisticated, but they tend to be friendly, unvarnished. The nasty image framed by the Senate Bill 1070 immigration debacle, recollections of the dimwitted race-baiter Ev Mecham, etc., generally fades after visitors become familiar with the Grand Canyon State.

The fact that Ali decided to live here was the genesis of my theory of sports and celebrity and Arizona: that virtually every major sports figure eventually will live in the Valley.

Think about it. Wayne Gretzky, hockey's greatest player, lived here when he coached the Coyotes. Michael Jordan lived here briefly, when he played baseball in the Arizona Fall League.

Hell, Michael Phelps, the world's greatest Olympian ever, is living and training here right now, in preparation for his final attempts at gold.

Hordes of elite golfers (Phil Mickelson being the most prominent) and big-league baseball players have lived here. Willie Mays, the greatest living baseball player, has spent years here over the past half-century during spring training as both a San Francisco Giants player and as someone who, even now, serves as an ambassador for the team. Then there's Barry Bonds, who had a house in Scottsdale.

Looking back farther, Babe Ruth's daughter (if she really was his daughter; when it comes to the Babe, you never know) somehow found her way to Sun City to retire a generation ago.

Of course, Ali was best known locally for his work raising money to combat Parkinson's disease.

On that Friday night in 2009 at Packard, Ali sat in the disabled section up above the dugout. Late in the game, he and his wife took the elevator down to ground level, and, as he slowly walked out, I called out, "Come back any time, champ!"

Not sure if he heard me, but his wife waved.

That's what I'll remember. Muhammad Ali, local retiree, big-time sports fan.


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